February 19, 2021
Charming Leaving Iowa takes us on a welcome performance journey
By John Busbee for The Culture Buzz
The Des Moines Community Playhouse continues to ramp up its ability to deliver performances to its patrons despite the challenges wrought on the arts by the pandemic. They maintain safety protocols, allowing about 30% capacity to ‘fill’ their John Viars Theatre performance hall. Patrons attending in person are delighted for the shared experience that only live theatre can deliver. Those who wish to delight in this show’s script but not in person may take advantage of its on-demand offering through your device.
Following a format that proved successful last fall when they cautiously opened the theater doors, Leaving Iowa will be performed in repertory with Stuart Little. An adaptable scenic design allows this chameleon approach in presentation, and gives the Playhouse the chance to cater to two audiences simultaneously. Noteworthy is that Stuart Little will be the first Kate Goldman Children’s Theatre production since a year ago, beckoning youngsters back to enjoy the magic of seeing beloved literary characters come to life on stage.
Tim Clue and Spike Manton wrote Leaving Iowa as an homage to the family vacation, Iowa style. Iowa audiences will love the references, especially this reviewer, as he grew up on a farm with the small-town address of Mount Union, a real SE Iowa town referenced in the show. Winterset is another Iowa town mentioned, with its ongoing reference to it as the birthplace of John “The Duke” Wayne. Pella is named, but the authors stray a bit in referring to Prairie City as “Prairie.” Also, Mount Union is not on Highway 78, but located two miles south at the crossroads of County Roads H28 and X23. Artistic license is allowed, however, as Clue and Manton spin a heart-warming tale filled with a Sunday dinner’s worth of dishes for the reminiscent diner to savor.
Directors Peter Dean and David Kilpatrick take full advantage of the homespun warmth in this script, and kept its cast to a minimum. This story follows the return home of son Don Browning (given nicely layered complexities on his personal journey back home and back in time by Sam Sides), and flips between a family car vacation from yesteryear to the current task of interring Dad’s ashes. Filling out the rest of the Browning clan are Gregory Millar (filling his Dad with pleasant patriarchal potentate-dom), Debra Garner (a Mom with matriarchal second-in-command authority), and Hope Walker (as Sis, nicely played with persistently problematic pestiness). This quartet guides our way through Don’s memory of a Hannibal-destination family trip. Not his beloved Valhalla of vacations, the Dells. Hannibal. Don’s name for vacation hell. The recalling of that trip covers the gamut of recognizable parts of family road trips, giving the audience plenty to cherish, chuckle about, wince over, and otherwise embrace. Don threads the story with a folksy, ambling affability, shifting between narrator and participant, as the deceptively simple opening scenes segue into more satisfyingly complex themes. The audience invests in Don’s personal journey, filled with reflective regret, skewed situational humor, and his series of self-realizations.
Spicing up many scenes are two hard-working actors, portraying a ‘cast of thousands.’ Josh Sampson and Elysa Koss, as Guy and Gal, create one memorable character after another, delivering plenty of laughs as their characters range from a one-handed farmer and his wife to greasy-spoon diner employees. Sampson and Koss have plum cameos, and deliver the goods. Kudos also for an exceptional sound design, although no designer is credited in the playbill.
Leaving Iowa takes its audiences on a whimsical, wistful and thought-provoking journey through memory’s byways, leaving plenty of smiles and stirred recollections in its rearview mirror. Reserve your place in the family car for a captivating rumble down the shared roads of what the iconic vacation was really about: forging memories.
The Culture Buzz theatre reviews are written by professional writers to inform and enlighten. To receive weekly newsletters, email TheCultureBuzz@gmail.com or visit www.TheCultureBuzz.com. The Culture Buzz is a weekly broadcast/streaming arts & entertainment collection of conversations, airing Wednesdays 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM Central Time on KFMG 98.9 FM and streaming at www.kfmg.org.